twisted algorithms – amazon

books, by ian britton

this article by onnesha royschoudhuri sets out a familiar tale about amazon’s aggressive marketing of books as if they were cans of soup.

twisted algorithms recommending “books you might like” lead you to books whose publishers have paid for the privilege, it isn’t based on previous purchase or personal interest alone.

publishers who don’t play along and give amazon the discounts it demands are delisted or have their books’ “buy buttons” removed.

it is a depressing, predicable tale of market dominance and the arrogance it spawns.

although happily for consumers, writers and publishers, of course, such arrogance tends to lead to its own destruction.

link to the full article on the boston review.

About freddie


  1. I never click on Amazon recommendations on principle, though I didn’t realise they only recommended books from publishers who’d paid.

    But when you buy lots for kids and as gifts for people whose reading tastes do not at all match your own, it pays to ignore the supposed recommendations anyway.

    But “market dominance and the arrogance it spawns” cannot be blamed on the dominating organisations themselves – it’s an analogy of human greed per se and therefore we are all responsible. Is that not so, Freddie?!

  2. Caroline Hartman says:

    Thank you for this article – very enlightening. I agree with Sandy. From the retailer to the customer, greed rules. Sometime during the 80s and 90s the Superstores took over. They demanded better prices, higher discounts, and gave them too. I keep hoping for a backlash.

  3. yes sure we are greedy swine too! and amazon and abe are grand at getting second hand books to us easily and cheaply.

    but amazon’s lowest common denominator bottom-line fixated business model for new books will deprive us of great new writing..

    and, as publishing’s future depends on such, i reckon it will adapt and find other ways of getting books to readers.

  4. it’s tricky. amazon’s business practices are dubious to say the least. in the states, they bust unions, over here the working conditions in their distribution centre are – comparatively at least – awful. and it’s true their ‘bottom-line fixated’ business model also squeezes the life out of small publishers.

    but their value isn’t limited to their ability to get books to customers cheaply and on time; their role as a publicity resource is invaluable for small publishers and debut novelists too.

    how does great new writing get noticed? despites shifts in marketplace trends, i’d argure it’s still true that you have to be on the High Street. and with sales rep numbers dwindling (even if the publisher has the budget to produce a hard copy catalogue in the first place) getting new titles on the High Street is one of the biggest challenges facing small publishers.

    if they’re to take a punt on a new title from a first-time novelist, shop book buyers need a quick and reliable source of information. and it’s unrealistic to think that you can market a title through the website of an unfamiliar publisher or author alone. industry standard resource Nielsen Book Data charges publishers if they want to upload a precis or anything other than the most basic details about a book. Amazon doesn’t. in addition to the author and book info, the ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ and ‘frequently bought together’ features don’t cost publishers a penny.

    so Amazon is a showroom. and, like it or not, a handy port of call for even the most dedicated supporter of independent publishers and retailers (and, i would argue, for those ethical shoppers who acknowledge that their ethical shopping battlegrounds have to be carefully chosen).

  5. you’re right, charles, the showroom side of amazon and abe are v useful for readers and new writers (and hence for their independent publishers).

    the question is whether amazon’s overall strategy will be beneficial to their futures. it may pan out all to the good, it may not.

    my feeling is that it will (or the model will change) because readers outside of the mass market will continue to hunger to buy non-blockbuster, non-celebrity fiction. there will still be moneymaking opportunities in finding and publishing new writers!

    there is also something else worth noting, the angle that bezos is squeezing the publishers and aiming to deal direct with authors, something that works better with blockbusters than with new unknowns.

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